‘Hobbit,’ ‘Doctor Who,’ ‘Big Bang Theory’: Geek goes mainstream

Dec. 17, 2012 | 10:00 a.m.
(From left) "Star Trek" stars Brent Spiner and Will Wheaton with Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki on "The Big Bang Theory." (Monty Brinton/CBS)

(From left) “Star Trek: The Next Generation” stars Brent Spiner and Wil Wheaton with Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki on “The Big Bang Theory.” (Monty Brinton/CBS)

This post has been corrected. See below.


It started with The Big Bang.

Not the still somehow controversial theory of the universe’s origins, the CBS comedy, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Before those two wacky physicists and adorably mismatched roommates Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) began wooing hearts and winning Emmys, the term “geek” was something of a pejorative. Proudly worn, perhaps, by those to whom it applied–comic book collectors, math heads, Trekkies, sci fi and fantasy fans and other obscure genre devotees–but certainly not in any way synonymous with popular, or influential or, heaven forbid, hot.

Now, of course, we live in a Brave New World. San Diego’s Comic-Con International is a pop cultural touchstone/marketing platform, video games are truly the next new art form and Stephen Colbert proudly brandishes his pricey replica of the Elven blade and Sting and quotes from “The Silmarillion.”

Meanwhile, every other feature film revolves around at least one Avenger and characters like “Bones’“ Temperance Brennan and not one but two versions of Sherlock Holmes dispense obscure factoids in the rapid-fire monotone that is a hallmark of the species.

Cumberbatch's performance as the Baker Street sleuth alongside Martin Freeman's Dr. Watson in the "Sherlock" TV series has catapulted him into the public eye and earned him several awards nods, including BAFTA and Emmy nominations. (BBC/PBS)

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the Baker Street sleuth alongside Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson in the “Sherlock” TV series has catapulted him into the public eye and earned him several awards nods, including BAFTA and Emmy nominations. (BBC/PBS)

YA fiction, with its focus on mythological/fantastical/supernatural series, is charring out a new generation of insta-geeks into a culture where it is now perfectly acceptable for grown men to own action figures, and grown women to publicly swoon over sparkly young vampires, where the lead of the previously cult-classic “Dr. Who” recently appeared, for the first time ever, on the cover of TV Guide.

After decades of bespectacled, perpetually virginal and Asperger-like obscurity, the geek has inherited the Earth.

But at what cost?

Higher visibility has always had a converse relationship with counter-culture credibility, but considering that the essential nature of geekiness is its habitat on the fringe, popularity could, like the Earth’s atmosphere in “The War of the Worlds,” prove fatal.

Drawn by the radiance of validation, the thrill of seeing oneself reflected lovingly in the mighty eye of the marketer, of being not just accepted but lauded by those who once mocked, the true geek risks becoming just one of many cultural outliers left shivering in the light, having been systematically stripped of the feathers and foliage that provided both color and protection.

Matt Smith plays the Doctor in "Doctor Who." (BBC)

Matt Smith plays the Doctor in “Doctor Who.” (BBC)

If everyone knows what the TARDIS is, and what the letters stand for; if everyone understands the origin of Orcs or that J.R.R. Tolkien was trying to create a new mythology for his Arthurian-obsessed country; if anyone can not only list the original Avengers but rattle off the Homeric list of recruits, or deconstruct the original relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, then what’s the point of being able to do so?

Watching early episodes of the Kevin Bacon vehicle, “The Following,” which premieres in January, this particular geek girl could not help both loving and loathing the fact that the central conceit revolves around Edgar Allan Poe. The truly dreadful, and mercifully little seen feature film “The Raven,” already stripped the knowledge of the poet’s mysterious last words of any smarty-pants currency, and now, apparently, even the ability to cite at will “The Raven” and/or “Annabelle Lee” in their entirety will mean nothing more than familiarity with the show’s website, a literary spin-off of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe in "The Raven." (Relativity Media)

John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe in “The Raven.” (Relativity Media)

Armed with Wikipedia and an Idiots or annotated guide to just about everything, the average citizen can, in minutes, discover the tantalizing bits of canonical knowledge it once took years to accumulate — years in which some of us clung to our semi-secret predilections for fantasy or science fiction, playing Dungeon and Dragons instead of dodgeball.

Our ability to recognize and retain lists and lore, to recite poems or plots, to understand the archetypal yearnings that drive most genre fiction set us apart in a world more impressed with sports stars and cheerleaders. It made us special, and easily recognizable by others of our kind.

Yes, there is liberation in coming out, as Colbert has done, as a reader of appendixes, a dispenser of literary minutiae, and frankly, it’s about darn time TV Guide put the Doctor on the cover. Yet as we embrace the hoarding of arcane knowledge, be it the Grail theology of “The Da Vinci Code” or the iconography of “Battlestar Galactica,” we also threaten it.

Katee Sackhoff as Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, left, and Jamie Bamber as Lee "Apollo" Adama in "Battlestar Galactica." (Carole Segal / SyFy)

Katee Sackhoff as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, left, and Jamie Bamber as Lee “Apollo” Adama in “Battlestar Galactica.” (Carole Segal / SyFy)

Like a travel writer exposing her favorite “undiscovered” getaway, or a naturalist extolling the virtue of experiencing the Arctic first hand, our celebration of obsessive, repetitive and selectively collective devotion to certain books and films and television shows too often alerts the cultural tourists.

When everyone’s telling riddles in the dark and carrying Rima the Jungle Girl lunch boxes, there may be only one thing a true blue geek girl can do: Become a cheerleader.

For the record, 6:36 p.m., Dec. 19: An earlier version of this post spelled Edgar Allan Poe’s name incorrectly.

— Mary McNamara

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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14 Responses to ‘Hobbit,’ ‘Doctor Who,’ ‘Big Bang Theory’: Geek goes mainstream

  1. Jan says:

    "The Raven" was not dreadful.

  2. JGBurke says:

    First of all, it was the bacteria that killed the aliens in War of the Worlds…
    And like, those Sherlock Holmes rip-offs are dreadful, turning him into a substitute super-hero, which he was never partrayed as in the books or the Jeremy Brett series…
    And don't get me started on that money grab called the Hobbit…

    Sorry, had a geek fit there…

    Please, are we not tired of people with super-powers yet? Please. Can we play something else? Please? Remember the good old days? Hooker with a heart of gold? Eccentrics living in New York? Junk dealers in Watts? Overweight families trying to get by? Wacky war doctors in Korea?

    People are extraordinary enough. Really. Speak to one. You'll see. They're amazing.

    • msr85day says:

      I'm with you. Distract me with other characters sited in real life who turn tragedy on its head, who use ordinary grace and skill in extraordinary ways, without relying on far-fetched science or magical (unexplained science) features.

    • Madcap says:

      Speak for yourself, I get enough reality every time I go outside. Give me implausible, far-fetched, magical fantasy any day.

  3. Cara says:

    Interesting article! It's nice to meet a thoughtful take on the subject, rather than one that merely tries to name-check things without understanding them.

  4. richard says:

    Stuff and nonsense.
    Geeks are not social outcasts because they wish to be, they are simply because their tastes have not been considered "normal" by general society. The type of people that need that kind outsider cool are generally referred to as hipsters. If instead of mocked a geek can easily find a cool girl
    that shares his passions, well that is a good thing.

    The ultra intelligent types will likely still be somewhat outsiders, but they will become more cult figures rather than derided. At their hearts, geeks tend to be more tolerant since they too wish to be accepted.

  5. Rei Estrada says:

    I fail to understand this idea that something becoming mainstream ruins it. There are in fact only two things ruining geekdom these days: the insistence on referring to comic books as “graphic novels” and people who espouse ideas like those represented in this column.


    What made me a geek for Batman wasn’t the ability to rattle off the various Robins or knowing the issue number of the first appearance of Clayface. It was hearing those bones crunch when a grizzled and aged Batman fought and defeated the mutant leader in the Dark Knight Returns and reasserted his dominance in Gotham. It was seeing the new Batmobile for the first time in Batman Begins. It was reading about a world where heroes and justice existed.


    What made me a geek for the Legend of Zelda wasn’t the just knowing the esoterica of the history of Hyrule or speculating on the connections between each game. It was the feeling of finally getting through the Water Temple. It was the friendships that Link made with characters like Saria or the Red King, and yes, even Navi. It was the sense of adventure bigger than myself that I had while playing.


    What made me a geek for Scott Pilgrim wasn’t a robotic ability to point out and categorize all the references to video games and comics and music. It was that awesome first and surprising fight scene against Matthew Patel. It was that whole “Empire Strikes Back” feeling that you were left with at the end of volume five. It was the twinge of empathic resonance I got when I saw the feeling of heartbreak perfectly rendered in comics form.


    I could go on and on. What made me a geek for Paranoia Agent is how weirdly twisted and wonderful it is. What made me a geek for Final Fantasy VI was the ensemble cast’s personal struggles as they fight to save the world. What made me a geek for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was that it was hilarious. And 42.


    The point is that none of these things is ruined because more people like them, and my enjoyment of them never relied on the fact that I was one of some mythical select few. I can’t even imagine the argument one would have to make to argue that more people enjoying something automatically makes it worse. And if you really think it does, that’s just you being a snob quite frankly.


    Geekdom has never been and should not be defined as a culture of exclusion. Exclusion is what made us all feel alienated in the first place, when people called us dorks because we thought science was cool or liked the Power Rangers after age five or wished we could fly, too. It was the inclusion that mattered: making friends with people who liked Star Wars and dragons and ironic humor just like us, and hearing the stories that let us know that we weren’t in this alone.


    Lastly, Community > The Big Bang Theory. Forever and ever.

    • Jack Frost says:

      Having never been able to sit through a whole episode of the dreadfully unfunny Community without wondering how it got green-lit in the first place, I whole-heartedly disagree with your last statement.

    • Community FTW says:

      Community is probably the best show on TV. Big Bang Theory is wholly unfunny, irritating and insulting to watch.

  6. V says:

    It doesn’t help your thesis when you misspell Poe’s middle name. It’s Allan. You can find that and the reason he adopted it on Wikipedia.

  7. msr85day says:

    I'm one of those who partook of these genre, to understand my male colleagues, "light years" before this craze of sub-culture clout. I'm glad to see less bear-baiting, but I guess with the 314 million in the US, there are enough science nerds/geeks to be a sizable market segment. We'll see if this trend prompts study that builds more engineers and physical scientists.

  8. Jessie says:

    Big Bang theory isn't geeky it's for the people who think they are nerdy but aren't. like they just go by stereotypes and they give them big degrees and just shove down references and laugh tracks. So big Bang theory isn't a nerdy show it's not really great I don't get why it has so much praise.

  9. Patrick says:

    The content overall was pretty interesting, but it was also very well-written. Exceptional vocabulary and sentence structure throughout by whoever wrote this, even if it is a bit…nerdy to say so. The paragraph-long sentence starting with "Drawn by…" was my favorite. Well done. One thing to point out… *appendices instead of appendixes. Thanks for the great read.

  10. Josh says:


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